The Sci-Art Moniker and Art’s Fight for Relevancy

Daniel Hill/As has been touched on so eloquently elsewhere here, and as evidenced by the absence of Sci-Music or Sci-Poetry, the visual arts appear to be in a desperate position to retain some cultural authority.  Whether the alienation of the general public; the toll paid for years of cold, exclusive postmodernist jargon; a blind capitalist system dictating aesthetics via market value; or poor overall art education, the art world seems to be a bit of a mess right now.  It is no wonder that Sci-Art would emerge, but the moniker has become synonymous with an illustrative aesthetic which can lose sight of art’s fullest, most valuable potential.  It is noteworthy that the “Sci” comes first in this name and emphasizes the concern that the art part gets lost.  Art has the unique ability to pitch our perspectives outside of our little world enough so that we see the world through new eyes and touch upon the ineffable.  This transformative catalyst is needed more now than ever in society.  But making good art is not an easy road.  It can be extremely difficult and requires years of dedication and sacrifice to find one’s personal vision and develop a unique visual lexicon.  I fear Sci-Art could offer a tempting, easier route that relies too heavily on the science in place of doing the dirty work. If Sci-Art is to move forward, do we want the type of art that is mainly a scientific pedagogic tool or the catalyst of personal and societal transformation?  Can we have both?  And if we can, is the latter still called Sci-Art?  Perhaps the latter needs no name.  Great art does not depend on its description; it simply is just great art. Matthew Ritchie was basically making a form of science inspired art decades ago but it wasn’t called SciArt.  Maybe this Other Sci-art should not be a movement as much as it should be a personal decision on the artists’ part.  It is my experience as an artist and curator that being able to talk about art within a scientific context does increase an audience’s ability to appreciate the work.  Maybe this is because it ties a complex visual language to that which is the most compelling concept- the truth, or its pursuit.

16 Replies to “The Sci-Art Moniker and Art’s Fight for Relevancy”

  1. Daniel, I share all the sentiments you express here, and I particularly appreciate your pointing out the tendency of some “sci-artists” to think they can bypass the hard work it takes to be an artist. From what I see, there seems to be an entire generation of young artists out there who think sticking an image of neural circuitry onto a painting somehow makes the work “smart.” I’m not sure where they got this impression (is it the MFA programs? Are they becoming less rigorous?), but it’s somewhat painful to those of us who’ve spent decades laboring to make work complex and substantive enough to be called art. I’m not sure how they’re going to be disabused of the notion, especially since they form something of an exclusive club that admits no dissent. But the larger issue, for me, is the impression they’re giving the scientists they work with. The idea that art is easy and fun and that it exists to amuse is already entrenched in their culture; if genuine art-science collaborations is what we’re aiming for going forward, we artists must do everything we can to dispel this myth rather than presenting ourselves in such a way as to perpetuate it.

    1. “The idea that art is easy and fun and that it exists to amuse is already entrenched in their culture; if genuine art-science collaborations is what we’re aiming for going forward, we artists must do everything we can to dispel this myth rather than presenting ourselves in such a way as to perpetuate it.” Very good point- it is an uphill battle and one that exists beyond the sciart realm and into the very fabric of culture. Without the support of an overhaul in art education and the eventual shift in attitude towards the arts in society, artists will continue to have a very tough road indeed. Which is why my thinking endures doubts that science can help recontextualize art and break or expand its current status.

  2. Daniel, your last two sentences have made me realize something: science might not even be the real subject of sci-art. Perhaps science is being used merely as a *symbol* of “objective” truth, that which was under attack in the science wars and which some artists now seek to revive. In that case, what matters for sci-art is not actual scientific content, but science’s mythic aura. Scientific imagery functions here like a religious icon, as a talisman evoking something pure and noble.

    1. To expand on my comment above: if this is correct, it explains Daniel’s and Suzanne’s observation that not every artist who uses science gets labeled as a sci-artist. The reason is that only one particular face of science is relevant to sci-art.

      Seen in this light, the motivations behind sci-art seem benign and perhaps even utopian.

    2. This takes us back to something that came up earlier: the idea of science as a symbol of transcendence — or as I put it, salvation — which I find really interesting. Perhaps me mean different things by this, Werner, but what I was thinking of with regard to the salvation issue is that as much as modernism’s ideals were rooted in the belief that technological progress would deliver us from all our woes, art was also seen as a vehicle for salvation (in this case spiritual rather than material). So in that era art, science, and technology were felt to be equally noble pursuits, since all three held this soteriological promise. But with art’s rejection of its spiritual aspirations as postmodernism took hold (to the point where the word “spiritual” is still considered anathema to many artists), science and technology have become the sole torch-bearers of salvation. My hypothesis is that art longs to recover its spiritual dimension but can no longer believe in it the way it once did, so it’s reaching toward science to regain it by association. I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious – only that some of these implicit longings may underlie sci-art’s emergence.

      1. Yes I think you are both referring to the same idea. And the word “spiritual” actually does make me cringe. Perhaps because it is one of those words that has be used so much and with so many differing meanings, that it has actually become meaningless (for me, and I suspect others.) Is it the longing for transcendence, the awareness that transformation is perpetually needed to overcome our ignorance? This speaks to Model Dependent Realism, which I mentioned elsewhere.
        If we are aware that we are likely wrong, we are smart to look for ways to transcend ignorance more quickly. This would also apply to our personal models of perception, thinking, and evaluation. If art is to use “spiritual” as a word, it risks being associated with the morass of New Age fluff out there. As is the case for a substitute for Sci Art, I do not have a alternative word.

        1. It’s interesting, Daniel, re: the word “spiritual.” I think there’s a significant movement afoot to wrest it from the clutches of New Age woo and restore its former dignity as a respectable word within art. I support that movement. I’d also support coming up with a new word, but nobody seems to be able to do it (least of all myself — same for sci-art!). That said, I think there’s plenty of potential for articulating what a new kind of transcendence might mean — a secular one — that will have nothing to do with everlasting life or the sky god or any of those things we postmoderns can no longer accept. For me, it has simply to do with transcendence of one’s own puny, finite perspective — one’s skin-encapsulated ego — in favor of a deep feeling of connectedness with the whole system in which we’re inextricably embedded. Nothing fluffy about that, right? In fact, it seems to me that that’s exactly the sentiment we science buffs refer to as (for lack of less cliched terms) awe and wonder. But I like your take on it very much too — i.e., transcendence as a ceaseless striving to move beyond our own ignorance. (And let me confess here that I somehow missed your former mention of Model Dependent Realism, and as I head into that link now I realize I may be inclined to change my opinion!)

    3. When I first read this comment, it struck me as an “Ah ha!” moment. This an excellent insight and is potentially true in a good percentage of the work. I suppose it is necessary and performs a function.

  3. I think we do mean the same thing, Taney. I’m sorry I didn’t put two and two together when you first made your comment. My main speculation here is that the yearning for salvation may actually *explain* the particular quirks of sci-art that several of us have brought up in this symposium. I didn’t see the causal relationship until now.

  4. Both angles are interesting to consider, though. The main point, which you stated above so astutely, is that sci-art might not be about science at all but rather what it represents to people psychically. I think there’s something quite poignant about that. The more I think about this, the more convinced I become that so much sci-art is a case of misapplied literalism.

  5. One of the fantastic outcomes of this symposium is the opportunity to observe one’s own views under a microscope and sharpen the focus of meaning and intent. My above post could be viewed as critical of the current SciArt movement and I suppose it is. Certainly I have entertained the perspective of a skeptic and can say I understand the criticisms. Ultimately I think the conversation between art and science has enormous potential and only through analysis can it become stronger and more effective. I see that the sentence “If Sci-Art is to move forward, do we want the type of art that is mainly a scientific pedagogic tool or the catalyst of personal and societal transformation?” is the wrong syntax: it is not an either or situation.
    The enthusiasm is palpable in the SciArt scene and any enthusiasm for art and/or science on any level in our current troubled society is a good thing. This will continue as it performs a necessary function. I only hope that the other that I refer to is not overlooked; that it too, has a much needed function as well; one that has an innate link to our species as a sophisticated language for communicating the ineffable and perhaps a link to our personal and collective realization of, and transcendence of, ignorance.

  6. For me it is very exciting to read this conversation with regards to the possibility of SciArt to produce what R. Otto called the ‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ or ‘the numinous’. Those are other ways to refer to the experience of awe that religions are able to inspire. But, of course, those experiences do not need to be associated with any religious dogma. (In fact, mystics are usually unwelcome by organized religions). I have no doubt that Art and Science are able to produce such emotional states in people as suggested by Taney in our earlier conversations. Can SciArt be the catalyst of personal and societal transformation?, I suppose it’s worth a try!

    1. Great, Luis! Would you mind if I post this as a separate post at the top of the feed? As we move into the final hours I’m encouraging concluding remarks — and this feels like one of them!

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